America's forgotten fruit
The native pawpaw tastes like banana and grows close to home.
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Credit its emergence to John Vukmirovich, the Johnny Appleseed of the pawpaw world – a self-proclaimed member of the “pawpaw conspiracy” (a type of pawpaw liberation front, if you will), a surreptitious sower extraordinaire of this country’s largest native fruit.
Never heard of it? That may change. Earlier this month Ohio declared the oval, green produce its “official
state native fruit.” And proponents of local food, who eschew imported fruit, regularly declare the environmental and culinary virtues of the pawpaw.
The fruit is a taste-treat usually described in terms of custard, crème brûlée, mango, banana, vanilla, even pineapple. Or, simply, delicious.
“And there is a deliciousness in the secrecy of the pawpaw,” says Mr. Vukmirovich, a college teacher. “That’s the love of being in a conspiracy. You’re on the inside. You’re in the know.”
The forgotten pawpaw was first spread throughout the mid-Atlantic and westward by native Americans as a source of nutrition as the nomadic tribes pursued wild game, historians say.
The tree grows throughout a wide swath of the Midwest – which explains why it is sometimes called the “Indiana banana” and why some Michigan pioneers named their town Paw Paw for the trees that once grew along its river.
Pawpaws disappeared from the American consciousness around World War I. They weren’t really rediscovered until the mid-1970s, when a young geneticist named Neal Peterson picked one up off the ground and bit into it.
“It was very sweet – very, fruity, floral – very enticing. Kind of ethereal,” remembers Mr. Peterson, who now operates Peterson Pawpaws, a nursery in West Virginia. “It sparked my imagination, and I had to find out why this delicious fruit was not in grocery stores.”
It turned out that they don’t ship well. Pawpaws are at their most delicious when they are ripe and soft – and a tad ugly. There is little supermarket appeal for bruised, soggy fruit.
Adding to this, the tree’s flowers smell like rotting meat (some orchardists actually hang roadkill in the limbs to attract the pollinator – the blow fly) and the fact that the pawpaw seed is said to be poisonous makes it difficult to attract all but the most ardent of growers.